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2nd April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 2, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

  It is unfortunate that the debate over education has come to a case of money, the commodity that has proven time and time again to have little effect on improving the performance of the most at-risk students. 

This is not to say that increasing the amount of money well spent on our schools won’t help. Perhaps it will. But as a society, we have demonstrated a knack to throw good money after bad, and then shake our heads when the outcomes don’t match our expectations. Maybe what we need are new ideas. 

The myth that money will solve all educational ills was popularized by Jonathan Kozol and discussed in an article in City Journal by Sol Stern as “America’s Most Influential — and Wrongest — School Reformer.” Mr. Kozol’s writings, often filled with inaccuracies, exaggerations, and deception, have driven the court cases like the successful case brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in New York State. This case has shifted the discussion away from “What works?” to “How much will it take to make the programs we know don’t work perhaps work better?” 
    Take the example of Cambridge, Mass., where about $17,000 is spent for each child, much more than in New York, and among the highest-spending districts in the nation. The student-teacher ratio is 9.8. But as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom point out in their book “No Excuses,” black students in Cambridge do significantly worse on standardized tests than do black students in the rest of the state, where less money is expended and class sizes are larger. 

    Why is Cambridge doing so poorly? Because even though it may be spending lots of money, it is spending it on the wrong things, the wrong programs, following the wrong ideology. In many cases it is the same failed educational philosophy that is being promoted here in New York City, designed by the departed deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Diana Lam. 

    Under the pressure imposed by the court order to increase educational funding in order to “ensure that all children have an opportunity to obtain a sound basic education,” Governor Pataki appointed the New York State Commission on Education Reform, headed by the former chairman of Nasdaq, Frank G. Zarb. 
    When the Zarb Commission was named, both Mayor Bloomberg and Assembly Speaker Silver screamed bloody murder. Mr. Bloomberg, at least, has moderated his view in light of the fact that Mr. Zarb and his colleagues have provided a thoughtful document that gives the governor and Legislature guidance as to how to turn the court mandate 
into a new school-financing law.

    Unfortunately, the ball has now been passed over to the crew that year after year has failed to fulfill its constitutional mandate to pass a budget — even a bad budget — on time. So don’t expect much, other than the almost inevitable fact that ultimately it will be the courts, not the governor, mayor, Board of Regents, or chancellor, that will end up running the school system. 

But whoever does end up making decisions would be advised to turn to the Zarb Report, rather than the alternative presented by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. The commissioners have made an attempt to balance competing interests. Much of the thinking in the Zarb Report is contained on two pages titled “Additional Ideas for Consideration by Policymakers,” described by some as a “bucket of good ideas,” that, hopefully, the governor and Legislature will dig into. 
These ideas include: 

• A state mandate for aggressive, early intervention for children at risk, considered by many experts to be among the promising ways to improve student performance. 

• A longer school day and/or a longer school year. This is a formula employed by some of more successful school systems in other industrialized nations. 

• Changing the structure of the Board of Regents, now appointed in such a way that it is the speaker of the Assembly who, de facto, names all the members. A more diverse approach can create the kind of creative tension that led to the reforms that raised standards at the City University. A related proposal would allow the governor, rather than the Board of Regents, to appoint the state education commissioner. 

• Unspecified changes in the preparation of teachers at schools of education. Recent studies have disclosed that teacher-training programs are heavily skewed toward the increasingly discredited “progressive” ideology. Related to this are other items such as teacher testing and reforms in tenure for teachers. 

• Expansion of the number and funding provided to charter schools. 
The message in these and the other ideas tossed into this bucket is that more money alone won’t solve our school problems. Creative thinking and new approaches are far more valuable. 

Hanging over all this are the conclusions reached by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, whose lawyers are now trying to win $20 million in legal fees, money that I guess they feel is serving a higher public purpose when given to them rather than to, say, hire 500 new teachers, which would cost an equivalent amount. 

CFE initially felt that it would take a spending increase of a bit over $7 billion to provide a “sound basic education.” Figuring that this spending increase wouldn’t bankrupt the state fast enough, they hiked their tab to $9.5 billion. 

It has been suggested that such a spending increase would result in tax increases in a state already $5 billion in the hole. And tax increases of that magnitude would result in loss of jobs, a possible deathblow to a crippled state economy. 

Maybe a better idea is reaching into the bucket before we reach for the checkbook.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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